Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


Democracy Promises

Published: 01-MAY-04

The tub-thumping is over. The election posters are hanging forlornly. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) can't stop grinning, and the once-mighty National Party, now the New National Party (NNP) is on the brink of extinction. Yes, South Africa's third fully democratic elections are over, and once the hangover of the end-of-month inauguration is over, it's back to work for the politicians.

For some reason, though, South Africans can't quite shake off a nagging anti-climatic feeling. Sure, the elections were free and fair - a shining example, in fact. And yes, we're celebrating 10 years of democracy in our rainbow nation. But apart from a few minor surprises, there was an overwhelming inevitability about it all.

Some analysts say a boring election is a sign of a mature democracy. They may be right. The prospect, though, of another four years of increasingly arrogant ANC rule leaves many people cold - not least Tony Leon, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), whose highly divisive election campaign failed spectacularly when it came to the crunch.

There was only one real winner: the ANC, which waltzed away with a staggering 279 seats - or 70 percent - in the 400-seat national parliament. After that, it was up to the rats and mice: 50 seats for the DA, 28 seats for the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, 9 for Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement (UDM), and 7 each for the NNP and the Independent Democrats (ID) of the feisty Patricia de Lille.

De Lille's remarkable performance out of nowhere - and the NNP's implosion - were the talking points of the poll, but the mostly unasked question in the background was: how does the ANC retain such overwhelming loyalty in the face of such underwhelming performance at grassroots level? It has used its parliamentary dominance to block opposition parties from holding the executive to account. It has overseen the average SA household becoming significantly poorer between 1995 and 2000. It has, to put not too fine a point on it, failed the poor people it was supposed to liberate from the yoke of poverty.

Writing in the respected Financial Mail before the poll, political analyst and academic Sipho Seepe was scathing: "The party uses a blunt instrument in its cadre deployment strategy. Those deployed to critical positions do not have the intellectual competence. Understandably, therefore, they cannot deliver. Corruption and incompetence are among the defining features of government." Seepe quotes former president Nelson Mandela as saying: "Little did we suspect that our own people, when they got the chance, would be as corrupt as the apartheid regime."

It is a serious indictment; one which suggests that the ANC has forgotten the words of one of its icons, Oliver Tambo: "We should demand food and not guns, jobs for the unemployed, the diversion of resources to improve the lives of the impoverished masses." It is tragic that this advice escapes the present ruling elite, says Seepe.

Another veteran political commentator, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, agrees with Seepe that one of the ANC's first tasks now needs to be to find a new language for the political landscape. The ANC has been at the helm of government for a decade, but the discourse remains at the level of "us and them", "black versus white", "right-wing versus left-wing", "revolutionary and counter-revolutionary".

"This is inadequate to capture the extraordinary changes that have taken place at political, societal and individual level," writes Seepe. "Post-apartheid SA is much more complex." The way forward for the ANC is clear. It is time for them to deliver services, create jobs, fight crime and continue the battle against HIV/Aids - the very issues the party fought the election on. It will be particularly interesting to see how Mbeki behaves. In the weeks before the election, he underwent an astonishing transformation from aloof intellectual to beaming man of the people. He hugged babies, pressed the flesh, drank sorghum beer, jived on stages across the country. And the people loved him for it.

With the masses won over for another term, will he now retreat to his ivory tower? South Africa certainly hopes not. True democracy involves continuous engagement with the people.

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